Moisés Chiullan is the founder and host behind Electric Shadow Network, podcasts about storytelling in varied forms: cinema, comic books, and customer service, specifically. Throughout his varied career, he’s been a writer, actor, phone-answerer, ad salesman, and various other things. He majored in Anthropology many years ago and likes his coffee black as midnight on a moonless night.
Moisés was kind enough to share his passion for the Blackwing 602 pencil. His passion led to the pencil’s inclusion in Need, Vol. 9 and a great deal of popularity amongst our members.
I did not realize that my first Blackwing pencil experience was a “Blackwing pencil experience” until I found out they’d been discontinued, the same day that I began learning about their history.
I was a music student, a high school choral singer. The most important thing to know as a music student of any sort is that one must never be at a rehearsal without a pencil. The same goes for actors. Whether I swiped the Blackwing 602 from my voice teacher or was offered it as a loan…either way, I’d forgotten to bring one. I paid less attention to the gold-lettered, “BLACKWING 602” emblazoned on one side than I did the slogan “HALF THE PRESSURE, TWICE THE SPEED” on the reverse. What an awfully egotistical thing of a pencil to say. I mean, it’s just a pencil, right? I did not hold in my hand the tool that would bring world peace, for crying out loud.
Little did I know that I was holding the pencil par excellence used by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, men whose classic work I was studying and marking up with the same pencil they used to write, compose, and create it. Specifically, I was learning “Maria” from West Side Story.
I jotted notes in English class about John Steinbeck with his own pencil of choice, writing about his writing of Tom Joad, Cal Trask, and Lennie & George. I would dash off notes in my Indiana Jones-ish writing journal for later use in composing a new short story or poem. Steinbeck went through an estimated 300 Blackwings to complete East of Eden.
I was doodling cartoons in the margins during lecture with the sketch tool preferred by Chuck Jones, an animation titan whose pencil originals I pore over as an adult each time I visit San Diego. A Blackwing pencil was used in the creation of Bugs Bunny (you can skip to 2:10 in the video).
Don Bluth has loved them for decades, too.
You don’t really have to bear down very hard at all, under any circumstance, with a Blackwing (the original 602, or the modern variants).
The softer graphite is smoother, and indeed, requires half the pressure (less callousing). It really does scribble at twice the speed. It makes me think of the first time I had a double shot of espresso. It’s like driving with an overpowered muscle car after only puttering in hatchback mini coupes. To the dedicated creative writer of any stripe, it is like manifesting super powers, albeit the very mundane kind.
After a life that began in the 1930’s, the Blackwing 602 was discontinued in 1998, the same year I got my first and only pencil from the original run. After going “out of print”, they were impossible to find. I didn’t realize this until I went to a local OfficeSomething store and asked if they had any of “this kind of pencil with the rectangular eraser,” to which I was told “we only special order those—wait, actually, it says they don’t make them anymore.”
I wish I could pretend that I was crushed or crestfallen, something terribly melodramatic, but my reaction was more akin to “huh, that sucks. Oh well.” I still didn’t entirely grasp what I had touched and just as quickly lost.
Over time, I’d come to miss the superior design and function of the squared-off, rectangular erasers just as much as the performance of the graphite. On a very basic level, I hate how every other pencil I’ve used performs one of its most essential functions: erasing. The dimensions induced the right amount of friction, and most importantly, it just goddamned worked without streaking the paper or requiring the grip of a gorilla.
I went back to my voice teacher and asked if they had any more of the pencil that, I noted, I was pretty sure I had accidentally swiped. “No,” came the dejected answer, “did you know those are the pencils Stephen Sondheim uses?”
At the time, I’d only just begun a lifelong obsession with one of the great minds in musical theatre. In that world, Stephen Sondheim is a king, he of Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Company, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sunday in the Park with George, and A Little Night Music, among many others. He wrote the lyrics to West Side Story over Leonard Bernstein’s music. One of the few records in my house growing up was my mother’s LP of the Original Broadway Cast recording. In the era of tapes, just shy of CDs, everyone at school thought I was form another century, regaling them with how the mastered-for-vinyl music just sounded more…alive on vinyl.
It wouldn’t be until college that I was introduced to what I consider Sondheim’s opus, Merrily We Roll Along. It tells the story of three friends over the span of about 20 years, but it progresses chronologically in reverse, going from the 1970’s back to the 50’s.
Merrily We Roll Along is fundamentally about the people and relationships tied up in doing creative work, and how we can disappoint ourselves and each other along the way. Sondheim describes it now as his most personal, deeply-felt work. If you ever have an opportunity to see a production (they’re rare), even if you think you hate musicals, you must see it.
It was fitting that, while performing in a production of it in the mid-aughts, that I came into possession of my second Blackwing 602. It was like traveling back in time in the good way (as opposed to the dooming the future way).
This one, like the first one, came from a mentor. This time, it did not involve an accidental theft on my part.
He had no idea they’d been discontinued. I’d just finished a play directed by him and I asked to borrow something to write with while over at his place for one of many dinners he would host for all his “children” of the theatre. “Here,” he said, handing it over. “You want it back?” “No, keep it.” It lasted me until sometime during the actual run of Merrily.
I’d kept it in the dressing room, making sure whatever journaling or scribbling that bled out of my fingers related to the show came from that pencil. It disappeared during one matinee.
It was just a pencil, right? It really just was so. I wasn’t heartbroken, it was like misplacing a favorite hammer, the handmade kind they don’t sell at Home Depot anymore.
Whoever it was who grabbed the thing figured it wouldn’t be missed. They probably weren’t aware they’ve regularly gone for $40 a pencil (yes, each) since their discontinuation. I had gotten most of my use out of it, and shrugged off the loss.
Sondheim continued as the common thread throughout my Blackwing story when he made me aware that the Blackwing 602 was back a few months ago.
He didn’t send me an email or call me. I don’t call him “Steve”. We aren’t friends. I had finally gotten around to watching the Six By Sondheim documentary produced by HBO, and it includes an extended bit on Blackwing 602 pencils and why he loves them. He lauded the Palomino division of Cal Cedar for reviving the Blackwing brand back in 2010.
Wait…2010? It had been back for four years and I’d no idea? On top of all that, there were new variants beyond the 602?
I paused the movie and fell down an internet rabbit hole for about double the documentary’s running time.
Sixteen years after my first taste, I found myself scrambling to order a box and pay extra overnight them.
Once the order was through, I sent a text to my friend Matt that read something like “You’ll think I’m crazy, but there is a thing you absolutely must stock in your next Edition.” The followup was, “It is a pencil, and yes I’m serious. More tomorrow.” The followup followup was simply the words, “Sondheim. Bernstein. Steinbeck. Chuck Jones. Capote.”
When they arrived the next day, my wife asked, “Why did you overnight pencils? What’s the big deal?” “Oh darling, there’s a whole story to that. Just trust me.”
We too often become enveloped in “legendary” tools, from notebooks to pens to yes, even pencils. We invest irresponsible amounts of money into tools that are somehow supposed to make us geniuses by their transformative touch. Our journals suitable for petting and paper stock heavier than most stones will not make us the next Whitman or Faulkner. They do not bring us any closer to the genius of Steinbeck, Sondheim, Jones, Bernstein, or anyone else who has or does use them.
By chance, I found out this morning that comics wünderdude Matt Fraction (writer of the Eisner Award-winning Hawkeye and Sex Criminals, along with countless others) is an out-and-out, capital-F fan himself, as evinced by this tweet. Look deep into the frame, on top of the books. He told me by email shortly after I sent my almost-final draft of this piece that none other than Greg Rucka turned him on to them.
What I love about the Blackwing’s revived incarnation is that the company behind it respects and cherishes the legend behind it, but more importantly, they focus on producing the right tool for the job that it’s hired for: writing and making marks on paper. Unlike other “legendary” products, the association of the product to famous names isn’t a cheat or “trust us on this”, it’s absolutely accurate. Matthew Weiner’s inclusion of the original Eberhard Faber-produced Blackwing in an episode of Mad Men was based on research and authenticity, I assure you.
For a long time, these were the best pencils for the job, and now they are once again. They’re serious enough about it that there’s an official Blackwing 602 fan site. They’re also big on charitable giving, putting pencils in the hands of school kids and funds toward schools that need them.
For me, the Blackwing 602 reconnects me to my earliest days as a published fiction writer, and what I now know to be my most foundational experiences as a performer and creative artist. Even if it weren’t itself an artifact from those experiences, its form and function would make it the tool that brings me back to pencils after simply avoiding them for years, aside from when I absolutely must use them.
The Blackwing is a pencil with a job to do, and it’s serious about that job. It stares back at me from my desk saying, “Half the pressure, twice the speed…is there a reason you’re procrastinating right now? Seize the day and go do something that makes life worth living, jackass.”
The only advice I’ve ever given people who want to write, draw, or create something is: just start doing it. To do that, all you need is paper and a decent pencil that makes the doing of it a pleasure. That’s the Blackwing 602 for me.
The romantic in me likes to think that Stephen Sondheim stole a Blackwing 602 off the piano from Leonard Bernstein. What do you think? Too far-fetched?
Moisés lives in Austin, Texas and all of his podcasts can be found at ESN, including a recent chat about Robin Williams with Andy Ihnatko from the Chicago Sun-Times. Give it a listen.